Don’t get hung up on the details when the details have never mattered
Mark Twain is credited with first saying that if you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait five minutes. The TikTok deal has followed a similar schedule.
On Friday, President Trump said downloads of TikTok would be banned from mobile app stores on Sunday, potentially preventing users from receiving critical security updates.
On Saturday, Trump said he supported Oracle’s bid to acquire a stake in TikTok and oversee some of its operations, and extended the ban date to September 27th. As part of the deal, he said, the companies involved had agreed to contribute $5 billion for “patriotic education.”
On Sunday, everyone involved took a well deserved rest. And as Monday dawned, everything went to hell.
Everyone agrees that Oracle and Walmart have bought a combined 20 percent of TikTok. But the remaining 80 percent appears to be up for grabs. Here are Georgia Wells and Alex Leary in the Wall Street Journal:
People involved in the deals have provided differing accounts over the structure of the remaining stake, with a spokesman for ByteDance Ltd., TikTok’s Beijing-based owner, saying Sunday that ByteDance would directly hold an 80% share of the new TikTok entity before an expected initial public offering.
Early Monday, Oracle issued a statement seeming to contradict that. “Upon creation of TikTok Global, Oracle/Walmart will make their investment and the TikTok Global shares will be distributed to their owners, Americans will be the majority and ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global,” Oracle executive vice president Ken Glueck said.
The disagreement over such basic terms of the deal shows the fluid status of the talks even after Mr. Trump on Saturday said he had approved the agreement in principle. It threatens to disrupt the carefully brokered pact, which could also be blocked by the Chinese government.
If ByteDance retains 80 percent control over the company, as it asserts, that would undermine the stated purpose of the deal — which was to, you know, force ByteDance to give up control of TikTok.
On the other hand, if ByteDance is forced to give up control, China seems likely to block the deal.
All of which would seem to leave us more or less where we were when the weekend began: scanning the horizon, waiting for the weather to change.
I am famously bad at making predictions about TikTok, but I’ll tempt fate and tell you how I’m thinking here. Last week, I wrote that TikTok’s deal with Oracle was a bet that Trump would cave on concerns over China. “ByteDance has essentially called Trump’s bluff,” I wrote, “wagering that he will accept the deal, reward a loyal friend in Oracle, and declare total victory. This … does not seem like a bad bet?”
In fact, on Saturday it appeared as if ByteDance had played its hand perfectly. “President Trump pronounced the agreement a success and blessed it,” the New York Times noted, “saying on Saturday that TikTok would ‘have nothing to do with China, it’ll be totally secure, that’s part of the deal.’”
Trump clearly bungled that nothing-to-do-with-China detail, but bungling details is consistent with all of the president’s public remarks about the deal. Calling in to Fox and Friends on Monday morning, Trump continued to assert that Oracle and Walmart would have “total control” over TikTok, and that he would block the deal otherwise.
Despite the uncertainty these remarks have generated, it still seems to me to be more likely than not that Trump will approve the deal. By threatening to ban TikTok without any real due process, the authoritarian president was able to flex his power. By forcing a structural change within ByteDance, however insignificant, he can continue to claim total victory — while glossing over all the details or lying about them, just as he did on TV Monday morning.
And by getting two stodgy old legacy businesses a big stake in a fast-growing consumer app, Trump can reward two of his more high-profile loyalists — Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who has raised money for the president, and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who serves on Trump’s coronavirus task force. “Oracle and Larry Ellison are great, great company, great guy,” Trump said this morning. “And as you know Walmart is Walmart, it’s great.”
If you thought that Trump’s negotiations with ByteDance were about producing some specific outcome, you might imagine that he would blanch at the terms the company has reached with its investors. But if you assume, as I did, that his negotiations were primarily about projecting power and influence, whatever reality lurked in the details, then all of this is proceeding more or less to plan.
There are still some big questions here — what happens to the ubiquitous Chinese app WeChat, which also faces a ban, is probably the most pressing. And it’s possible some new change in the weather causes Trump to follow through on his threat to block the deal anyway. But so far the most cynical take about Trump and TikTok has been the correct one — and cynicism suggests the president will want to see this mugging through.
Of course, there will be consequences. Chinese state media has already suggested that the nationalist splintering of the internet represented by this move ought to serve as a new global model for regulation, and the country is working on a broader plan for retaliating against the United States, the Wall Street Journal reported. And Trump’s flouting of the rule of law, however often we have seen it in these past four years, suggests even darker developments to come.
In its initial public statement on the deal, Walmart published a typo that, when read out loud, communicated a kind of anguished cry: “Ekejechbecehggedkrrnikldebgtkjkddhfdenbhbkuk.” Contemplating this chaotic TikTok deal and all it represents, all I can say is that Ekejechbecehggedkrrnikldebgtkjkddhfdenbhbkuk is right.